By Baillie Ward
It’s summertime, which means the kids are out of school, your AC is running on high, and you’re dreaming about dinner on a beach somewhere. For most of us, summer is time for family vacations. If you’re like me and you grew up in Florida close enough to a beach to have gotten your fill of the Gulf Coast, maybe you dream of more exotic locales like the Bahamas or South America. For those of you in landlocked states, maybe the Florida Beaches will suffice. Regardless, the annual family vacation can place a lot of strain on your patience and your wallet. You have to find a destination that pleases every member of the family, offers enough activities to keep the kids occupied, has great dining options, and won’t cost an arm and a leg. If it seems impossible, that’s because it can be really hard to plan a vacation that will provide memories to last a lifetime - and not drive a wedge between two kids who can’t agree on whether they should swim or build sandcastles.
I’ve compiled a list of tips and questions to consider when planning your family vacation. At best, you can use it as a checklist when deciding where to go on your trip, and hopefully your answers to these questions will narrow down your options to the perfect vacation spot.
Before you start planning your vacation, you need to decide: beaches or mountains? Or beaches with mountains? Maybe neither of those are appealing, and you’d rather go out West to the Grand Canyon- perhaps gorges are your thing. Take some time to narrow down what scenery you’re looking for, and then come up with a list of options.
All-inclusive resorts can be really appealing for some, but may not fit the lifestyles of others. If you’re drawn to the idea of not worrying about a budget once you’re on vacation, and you don’t plan on leaving the resort or hotel very often, an all-inclusive resort may be your best bet. These can be great for families who don’t want to keep pulling out a credit card for their kids to try different activities, or for families who don’t want to stress about where to eat dinner. It’s a great way to stick to a budget that was decided ahead of time without worrying about going over.
However, if you’re more adventurous or love living like the locals do, an all-inclusive vacation may not be the right fit. It’s probably a better idea to decide on a hotel where you can rest your head at night, but explore the surrounding area during the day by going to different restaurants or shopping hotspots. While it can be trickier to budget with this option, it will satisfy your desire to explore and can give you a much more authentic experience than all-inclusives.
My family has always loved going on cruises. They’re a pretty economical option to travel to multiple destinations, and if you’re fortunate enough to live by a port, you may not spend extra money travelling to and from the point of sail. However, if you’d prefer to spend your entire vacation in one place, cruises aren’t be a great way to ensure you have enough time to experience everything your destination has to offer. The downside of cruises is that usually you only have half a day to explore each port, so I always feel like I missed out on popular activities. Flying, driving, or sailing to a single vacation spot and staying there for a week may be a better option if that’s the travel style you prefer.
I’m a HUGE fan of Groupons. I’ve used them a handful of times to take painting classes, go to escape rooms, or get a discount on a restaurant I’ve wanted to try. Once you’ve chosen a destination, head to the web to try and find discounted goods and services you could add to your itinerary. Restaurants often advertise deals where you spend $50 but get a $70 meal, and popular recreational activities like golf, yoga, or painting studios will offer a percentage discount on their services. Yelp offers a cashback deal on popular local flavors, and the individual company’s site may advertise a special not listed other places on the web. It could take a bit of research on your part, but by the end you’ll have an itinerary packed full of options you got for a steal.
If your family isn’t in a position to splurge on a far off destination, there are still ways to get the most out of your summer break without breaking the bank. Planning a week of day trips, or maybe just a simple weekend getaway, can still provide your family with wonderful memories without needing a passport. Come up with a list of local spots you’ve always wanted to go to but haven’t made it yet. Or, pull out a map and find nearby cities that sound appealing. Theme parks, historic districts, or nearby hiking spots are just a few ideas to add to your itinerary. Day trips can provide a change of scenery and sense of adventure without crossing state lines, and you save a ton of money on lodging by coming home every night.
This isn’t always a best practice, and it certainly isn’t an idea I would count on for every vacation, but taking a risk and waiting until the last minute to plan a vacation can sometimes pay off. When it comes down to the wire, you can find really cheap flights, cruises, resort packages and other popular travel options for a reduced price while they try to fill the remaining empty spots. If you’re simply not sure what your financial situation will be in the future and you hesitate to plan a vacation months in advance, a last minute trip could work for your family. This could increase the stress of taking off work and vacation planning if you only have days instead of months, but it could allow you to book a vacation you otherwise couldn’t afford. Hitting the web with a simple “last minute vacations” search pulls up thousands of options, so if none of the previously mentioned tips fit your lifestyle, maybe this is the best choice for you.
I’m a fastidious planner, and I love having my trips planned down to the minute. For me, I try planning my vacations in detail months in advance, and having a primary itinerary and a backup itinerary. This vacation style doesn’t work for everyone; trust me, some of my friends prefer laid-back, spontaneous travelling over established itineraries - I avoid vacationing with those people. The important lesson to be learned from this is to figure out your vacation style and decide what you want to do. Determine what best fits your family, your budget, and your personal preferences, and go from there. You can still have a wonderful family vacation even when working within a tight budget, it just may take some extra research and planning. I hope these tips can help you to plan a memorable trip the whole family can enjoy.